In the poetry of the Athenian lawgiver Solon, justice (dikē) was a boundary stone marking out terms that rich and poor alike could respect. Yet ancient Greek authors also recognised the danger that the powerful will simply exploit those less powerful, and that Greek societies enforced slavery.
This lecture explores ancient Greek aspirations to justice - and how they fell short - as a call for recurrent interrogation of the terms governing power and vulnerability.
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This lecture was recorded by Melissa Lane on 11th January 2024 at Barnard's Inn Hall, London.
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:
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You've joined this event to think about ancient Greek ideas of justice. So imagine that before being allowed into this room or onto this live stream, you were required in order to think about justice, to put on a magic blindfold that erased most of your knowledge about yourself, your race, ethnicity, and gender, your skills and aspirations, your current income and wealth, your lifelong earning prospects. The idea is that only by veiling all of those facts from view, could you be properly situated to think about what is just and fair. The Gresham College lecture that you're listening to right now is giving you knowledge and insight from one of the world's leading academic experts, making it takes a lot of time. Send a link to this lecture to someone you think would benefit. And if you haven't already, click the follow or subscribe button from wherever you are listening right now. Just in the last two years, we've two seen two major works, one by Daniel Chandler, free and Equal. What would a fair Society look like? Again, how much money they had, their race, gender, or sexuality, even their religious beliefs and their wider goals in life. It was meant to be intuitive that was meant to kind of capture an intuitive approach to justice that people find appealing. After all, courtrooms around the world are adorned with images of lady justice, a female figure often depicted as wearing a blindfold, carrying scales and tum, sometimes a sword. So the veil in the form of a blindfold has come to symbolize very legibly and intuitively this impartiality of justice, judging without fear or favor, but not so for the ancient Greeks. So when we look at ancient Greek ideas of justice, by contrast, they're never characterized by a blindfold. They were actually characterized by keenness of sight, which I will follow the art historian Valerie Haart in calling clear sightedness. So this is the ancient Greek goddess, themus rep representing divine justice in an ancient image from about the thirds, um, 300 BCE, so the turn of the fourth to third century. And equally, her daughter with Zeus Dke representing human justice, also known as astria. But in this case, in in the 1494 woodcut that sometimes attributed to Alur, the image is meant to be satirical. And so in a 1593 work that summarized early modern iconography, Chere repo wrote that the personification of justice is a blindfolded woman. And this was this image. So in plu tar writing in the late first century turn of the second century of the common era, he recollects that in thieves and he means Egyptian thieves. There were set up statues of judges without hands, and the statue of the chief justice had its eyes closed to indicate that justice is not influenced by gifts or intercession. And this account of plutarch may have inspired this short wave of early modern images around the, um, around 1600 that shows judges with their hands amputated to capture their imperiousness to receiving bribes. And in the Greek and plu tar, it's described as their being odd door doone. But that image was kind of a short waved, uh, a short-lived wave. Now, the classical Greeks also did value impartiality. So when we look to the Athenian juror oath, for example, the Athenian jurors as Damani reports sworn themselves to judge with their most just judgment, and they shouldn't cast their votes through favor or any other unjust reason. So when the playwright ISTs, for example, this is a representation of his play, the humanities in which he gave a mythological origin to the Athenian jury, the goddess Athena herself joins a jury that will replace blood vengeance with a measured and formal trial giving the possibility of acquittal. But again, this founding myth of Athenian justice was carried out without any hint of a blindfold. And I'm going to do this by exploring the, the work of the ancient Greek law giver Solan of Athens, who otherwise I think is very comparable to Rawls and seeking to rethink the basic terms of social justice for a society. And then in conclusion, I'll explore some measures that might today instantiate the aims that Solan sought to achieve. So two brief caveats. A few ancient Greeks did make fortunes, but it was much more likely as we'll see, that people would slide into bankruptcy than that they would make it to the economic top. Nevertheless, as I'll now argue, we can learn a great deal by comparing the different ways that Solan and Rawls approach the question of establishing justice between the rich and the poor, and the contrast between clear sightedness and blindfolded in doing so. So the difference principle reads, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the expected benefit of the least advantaged. So rawls held that justice does not require complete economic equality. So the idea is that behind the blindfold, no one would endorse any greater allowance for inequality because everyone would be aware that while they themselves might have a chance of ending up at the top position, they have an equal chance so far as they know from behind the veil of ending up at the bottom. Now, like Rawls, Solan also rejected the idea that justice required perfectly equal economic holdings. And so my wager is that thinking about Solan in this dialogue with Rawls can help us to think further about what basic terms of justice a democracy might require today and how best we can identify them. So East Giles's play that I mentioned, the humanities was depicting a mythic legendary time. We can read records of his words and deeds as they crystallized in the century or so after he died when his oral poems were written down and in the painted inscriptions of his laws on wooden notice, notice boards, which he ordered should be set up and which were still visible centuries after he died. And there are references to Solen and many of our authors, including Herid, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle. So one of them is the Constitution of Athens, which was composed in this circle of Aristotle's Lyceum in the late fourth century, BCEI like to think of it as having been written by Aristotle's graduate students. So Aristotle's Circle, actually, we are told, assembled 158 different constitutions of different Greek uh, cities, but this is the only one which survives in, in part in, in, in this case, in a large part. So scholars have done a great deal of work on the differences of detail between these two narratives, but for my purposes tonight, I'm just going to draw on them both. So Solen was born to an elite family in Athens toward the end of the seventh century before the common era. But he had a special status in his life of having affinities with both the rich and the poor. We think that he came to this reputation in part because he came to publicly compose and perform oral poetry. He's the first known Athenian poet. There were other poets elsewhere of whom we have earlier records. And that meant that he traveled, he amassed wisdom from foreign sources, but he also built up a network of contacts and trust with the poorer citizens of Athens. And it was this division between the rich and the poor. So roughly speaking, perhaps 20% of the free population were an elite group, and the other 80% ranged in wealth and independence from small craftsmen to landless farmers. And so if they couldn't pay what they owed, they might be as it were, indentured, but until they could pay their debts. So this line between the rich and the poor generated a significant destabilization of the social fabric in Athens at the time. And there were other sources of political tension that the existing political institutions were ill-equipped to manage. But Solan was simultaneously given two further roles that were unusual. So on the one hand, he did establish impartial legal processes. So again, we see that the Greeks do value forms of impartiality injustice. So that might make it sound like he's going to treat the poor and the rich exactly alike. But as we'll see, actually in order to be fair to both sides, he actually treats them differently. And he describes himself as setting up a strong shield around both parties, again, not to allow either to defeat the other unjustly. A boundary marker, a shield, neither of those is going to work. So Solan had to be clear sighted in positioning himself to protect each side rich and poor from the excessive demands or pressure from the other. And these come from that text from Aristotle's graduate students, the Constitution of Athens. So they impose a floor. You can't sink into slavery now if you're a free person because you can't anymore take debts on the security of your body, which would risk throwing you into slavery should you default. So that puts a floor underneath the poor to allow them to maintain their political status as equal citizens. We know who has to be treated in what terms. So rather than being rawlsian, solens approach is actually closer to an approach that was advocated by the political theorist Michael Wazer. In this works, fears of Justice And that's what we can see Solan is trying to do. So this was, this was described as a real earthquake in the constitution of Athenian society. So when there was an excessive debt burden, even the courtroom justice, which was meant to be impartial, couldn't actually be practiced impartially because the poor would be under the thumb of at the beckon call of the rich. So both of our ancient narratives allege that Solan confided his intention to cancel debts to some of his wealthy friends who then engaged in insider trading. They bought, they incurred debts and bought land and then sat back as their debts were abolished, but their land investments remained secure. So this is a risky strategy, and it has to be timed appropriately and managed correctly, although the Constitution of Athens rejects an apparent accusation at the time that Solen himself was involved in the scam. So let me just add that Solan also of course passed many other laws, um, and we're going to look at some in more detail. And indeed the scholar Josiah Ober, in a recent work, the Greeks and the rational has analyzed the dynamics of Solens intervention in terms of game theory in exactly this kind of way. So on ER's interpretation, Solan could only go as far in effect as the rich would allow. So Ober again takes this line of analysis to have been anticipated again by plu tar. And he was accommodating his laws to the citizens in such a way as to make it clear to all that the practice of justice was better than the transgression of the laws. And he was accommodating his laws to the citizens in such a way as to make it clear to all that the practice of justice was better than the transgression of the laws. So Rawles might say this is not justice at all, if that's all justice is, if it's simply a bargain between the self-interested, this just isn't justice because rawls is whole concern. So Rawles might say this is not justice at all, if that's all justice is, if it's simply a bargain between the self-interested, this just isn't justice because rawls is whole concern. And that's exactly on o's analysis. And that's exactly on o's analysis. Soland had to set the boundary stone, but within a force field where there was far more power on the side of the rich. Soland had to set the boundary stone, but within a force field where there was far more power on the side of the rich. And so for raws, because the rich were able to sway where this new line of justice should be drawn, this shouldn't count as justice at all. And so for raws, because the rich were able to sway where this new line of justice should be drawn, this shouldn't count as justice at all. It was what raws would call elsewhere, a mere modus vivendi, a simple kind of way of getting along, a way of living together, but a way of living together that that isn't affirmed on moral ground. It was what raws would call elsewhere, a mere modus vivendi, a simple kind of way of getting along, a way of living together, but a way of living together that that isn't affirmed on moral ground. But I wanna suggest that there were more productive possibilities opened up by solens clear sighted approach than Rawls would allow. But I wanna suggest that there were more productive possibilities opened up by solens clear sighted approach than Rawls would allow. I think Ober may be right that Solens laws initially his arbitration did take the form of this kind of bargain between the rich and the poor that polled more in the direction of the rich. I think Ober may be right that Solens laws initially his arbitration did take the form of this kind of bargain between the rich and the poor that polled more in the direction of the rich. So Solen through his laws, sought to build a true settlement, a just settlement that would be a better way to live a true civic understanding of justice going beyond this initial kind of tolerable bargain. So Solen through his laws, sought to build a true settlement, a just settlement that would be a better way to live a true civic understanding of justice going beyond this initial kind of tolerable bargain. So for example, in his laws, which are to do with banqueting, as you see in the last line of this quotation, right? How should citizens regulate their feasting together? How should citizens regulate their feasting together? They need to learn how to hold excess in check. They need to learn how to hold excess in check. This is again from Solens poetry telling us of some of the aims of his laws. This is again from Solens poetry telling us of some of the aims of his laws. Um, he wrote a law, um, also about that. And so create a civic ethos of justice that could go beyond the mere modus vivendi in which his arbitration may have begun. And so create a civic ethos of justice that could go beyond the mere modus vivendi in which his arbitration may have begun. And actually, here solen makes common cause with rawls once again because rawls too argued that justice must ultimately secure what he called the social basis of self respect. So for Rawls, one of the reasons that we might insist on the difference principle where we peg the gains of the rich to the position of the poor is precisely because the parties in the original position behind the blindfold or veil would want to avoid at almost any cost. So for Rawls, one of the reasons that we might insist on the difference principle where we peg the gains of the rich to the position of the poor is precisely because the parties in the original position behind the blindfold or veil would want to avoid at almost any cost. So both Solen and rawls ultimately see justice as something that you have to make sustainable over time. So both Solen and rawls ultimately see justice as something that you have to make sustainable over time. It can't just be a one-off bargain, it might start in a bargain, but then people's commitments need to be transformed if justice is truly going to be achieved and maintained. That judgment is reserved for what he called reflective equilibrium where we come back, we take off the blindfold or the veil, and we reflect on what we've learned. That judgment is reserved for what he called reflective equilibrium where we come back, we take off the blindfold or the veil, and we reflect on what we've learned. And so even for Rawls, the blindfold must at some point come off. And so even for Rawls, the blindfold must at some point come off. So the first is transparency. So the first is transparency. Now, many of our sources interpret this as a law against idleness, but it's also a law man mandating transparency about the sources of income and wealth. Now, many of our sources interpret this as a law against idleness, but it's also a law man mandating transparency about the sources of income and wealth. So we often think today we only need transparency about those at the top. So we often think today we only need transparency about those at the top. And that's a laudable step toward transparency. But we might think, what about also disclosing the lowest salaries of the cleaners and the offices of those well paid civil servants so that we can be sure that on zero hours contracts on which many of them are working, they're earning enough for an annual living wage. So the fact that we have an annual minimum national minimum wage for hourly pay doesn't secure a, an annual wage in the way that this kind of disclosure could help. So I think solens transparency about the income of all people, rich or poor, again, clear sightedness suggests that we need disclosure to secure the social basis of self-respect in rawls's terms for everyone, floor and ceiling, in order, um, to test the existence of justice. And this again, I think is prefigured by solens cancellation of debts, which led to at least one generation being able to bequeath far more assets than they otherwise would've been able to do. So solen um, achi went some direction toward a progressive tax on wealth, but the Athenian democracy after his time would impose high special taxes on the wealthy. But again, it required clear sightedness. So again, we can think of further requirements of disclosure regulations on tax havens on holding companies in order to achieve similar goals. And this is a paradoxical law that many scholars have wrestled with because it seeks not to moderate and reconcile opposing factions, but it seems on the face of it to reinforce them. Uh, sorry, I had count Thomas Pickety. But this is the law that I want to end with. So we have this in both of our sources. Atmos is literally be without honor in this case, without civic honor or standing, and the constitution of Athens ads that such a person shall become atmos and shall have no share in the city. And that seems to be the opposite of what we might think he was trying as an arbitrator actually to achieve. Indeed polarization is one of the most serious concerns in contemporary democracies as the wreath lecturer this year observed, um, in, in his first lecture. So the danger that Solens law is trying to avoid is the danger that some people will engage in putting private affairs and safety and glorying in not sharing in the sick, the disgrace and sickness of the country. So the idea is that people should have to face the same perils. They should actually take part in the strife and try to make it come out in the just way rather than sitting back and waiting safely for the dispositions of the winners. So I think again, that this way of thinking about civic participation is in keeping with the clear sighted approach to justice that I've argued that Solan held and that he took from the basic Greek idea that justice should be clear sighted, not blindfolded. So thank you and please join me next time for ancient Greek ideas of equality under the law, and thank you very much for your attention. Thank you, um, as ever, Melissa Magisterial performance. Thank you. Some extent. Let's just take either one of those countries in order to adopt the principles of fairness, whether they be Ian or Celon. Yeah, thank you. So, so I, I, I do think that this idea that one needs to be able to identify and pinpoint where real power differentials exist in order to be able to then design appropriate legal instruments. I think that's a very important sort of application of the Greek idea of the clear sighted approach that I've been developing. So I flashed the Pickety image, um, very briefly, but of course, he and other scholars, Emmanuel Saez, um, and Gabriel Zucman and others have done very important work in trying to pinpoint the real sources of wealth inequalities and their real, just simply their real distribution. I, I was struck as well by, I'm not gonna pronounce this word very well, I suspect the seismic word. Yes. Because, um, just, I'm not sure if you were on a flight when this was all happening, but the new legislation that came in to repay the post office Yes. So you make a, a big event, which could have unforeseen consequences in an applied to other situations. Do you, do you see that as a parallel or is it something very different? I, I, I have been following that as much as possible because of course, it also is so resonant of the concern with accountability, which I was discussing in my first Gresham lecture. So, you know, when one sees this profound, um, failure of justice and, you know, carrying out of injustice, and then the question is how do you rectify that? I mean, I think what's different about it is of course, that in this case there was a specific act of, or specific act, many specific acts of injustice, which now have to be rectified. Do you think that the main difference between roles and Solon is that roles was an idealist kinda thing? Is the name of the game and compromise. And I think I recognize you from my first lecture, so thank you for, for being here again. Um, yes, absolutely. Solan, as I emphasize, was a real person in a real concrete political situation, you know, who had to make terms that both sides would accept and not lead to civil war sort of stand down from the possibility of civil war that was perhaps looming. Um, so I think that is right. So if we, um, you've concentrated a lot on disparities of, of wealth, um, less so on opportunity or yeah, for example, education. Are there other differences in distributor of justice which these rules which you have described rules, laws described, would apply? Um, but, but having said that, you know, I, I I did, um, I do think that it's also important that Solen also had these ideas about political inclusion more broadly. Um, education is an interesting question because many forms of education in the archaic and classical Greek worlds were restricted to the wealthy, or, or generally available mainly to the wealthy. So hiring special tutors for grammar or music, that was something that would only be done if you were wealthy. Maybe women we don't know. But that was a sort of popular education that put on stage dramatizations of ideas of justice and other values and everyone could engage with them. Um, Actually, it was the one I was thinking of asking just before. I'm an economist, so I'm thinking about the economic angle. And these people got into debt for a reason, presumably if they weren't given the skills and the to and the education to change their life chances they were gonna get into debt again. So was this a recurring problem, was one issue. And the second issue is you talked about the sort of the possibilities of switch wealth between different very wealthy parties to avoid paying for things. But I was also thinking at the time about, and you, you you about the way in which wealthy people will put their name on, you know, know right. Monuments today, um, be it the Sacklers or others, you know? Yeah. As a way of giving something back perhaps. So, you know, it wasn't necessarily about tax, but it's, you know, yeah. A way of actually ingratiating themselves perhaps, or whatever. Those are both great questions. So, um, uh, so there was the Cak thea, the one-off cancellation of debts. That was a kind of one-off reset, but then there was the, the abolition of, um, uh, loans secured on the, on the person, which then prevented people from, from falling into, um, the perils of debt slavery of certain kinds in the future. Now, it's true that the one-off measure, as far as we know, was never passed again. So, so yes, in the classical period, people did get credit of those kinds for donations, but we especially see that in the Hellenistic period. But the, in the Hellenistic period, there's a tremendous emphasis on individual donations and people being kind of, uh, honored in monuments and in, um, uh, decrees of cities for making those kinds of donations. But the, in the Hellenistic period, there's a tremendous emphasis on individual donations and people being kind of, uh, honored in monuments and in, um, uh, decrees of cities for making those kinds of donations. So it becomes an increasingly important way in which people both cement kind of, of course it gives them a kind of political status through using their wealth in those ways. So it becomes an increasingly important way in which people both cement kind of, of course it gives them a kind of political status through using their wealth in those ways. Yes. Yes. Um, I wanted to follow up on a a point that I think you were making about so long society being one where divisions and relative wealth was much more fixed. Um, I wanted to follow up on a a point that I think you were making about so long society being one where divisions and relative wealth was much more fixed. If you are rich, it's very, very unlikely you were gonna end up with your children's slavery. If you are rich, it's very, very unlikely you were gonna end up with your children's slavery. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. And I was wondering whether, we are so interested now in his ideas, because we're feeling that a little bit now, social mobility going down, the drivers of social mobility being linked to genetics, et cetera, et cetera, and whether actually rules was a bit of an anomaly just because of the time he was writing. And I was wondering whether, we are so interested now in his ideas, because we're feeling that a little bit now, social mobility going down, the drivers of social mobility being linked to genetics, et cetera, et cetera, and whether actually rules was a bit of an anomaly just because of the time he was writing. Yeah, thank you. Yeah, thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. So you're picking up on the point that I was making about the, the kind of caveat that, you know, when we think about Greek society, they were concerned about people falling below the floor, but they, they didn't expect that many people would actually kind of rise to the top. And it's, I I don't know about the genetics point. I'm not, I'm not familiar with what you're referring to there. And again, that goes back to the need for transparency about these things. And so, again, we need that clear sightedness in order to tell us this is not really possible to the same extent, in the same ways we're not seeing it. I hadn't meant to make the point of the parallel, but I think you're right actually, um, to point it out, Let's go to the, over the back. That'd be the last question, if you don't mind. Um, I just wanted to get your take on a point that ties into one of the last things you're referring to about that civic participation point. Yeah. And kind of solen kind of encouraging that more so versus the apathy. I mean, this year's a big year for kind of elections across the globe, particularly in the UK and the US Yeah. Yeah, that's a, that's a great question. And you know, I think that that idea that the idea that you have to take sides could translate into an idea of compulsory voting as, as exists in Australia, of course. Um, for example. Um, I think that's a very natural, um, application of that thought. And I think very much for the same reason that actually people shouldn't be able to stand back and say, it doesn't matter. I'm just gonna see what happens, you know, let other people decide. I think that is in fact, um, a way in which Solens idea may could make sense to us. But actually, you know, we do have the idea that people should, you know, ultimately conclude which side they stand on in an election and, and play a role in, in that civic determination. And so I think that idea does have a, an ancient Greek and especially Athenian resonance, um, that, that we, that we could learn from Gives us a good opportunity to exercise our rights, thank you very much for telling us a good way to go and a wonderful lecture. We look forward to March when you're giving two, and I hope you'll join us, uh, when Melissa is back again. Thank you very much.